In 2016, Faulkner’s Landscaping and Nursery, in Hooksett, New Hampshire, hit a record high: $2.1 million in revenues. In 2017, with even more commercial patios, greenery, and waterfalls to install, that number should have gone up. Instead, it plummeted by $500,000, thanks to a new government policy that prevented owner Stephen Faulkner from hiring the six Mexican guest-workers he needs for the summer rush. Without this foreign workforce, Faulkner and his nine American employees were forced to work 80-plus hours a week and struggled to hold onto longtime clients. “You have to try to hold your business together, but it turned into hell,” Faulkner says. “There was loss of income, loss of business, loss of employees, and loss of goodwill with my customers.”
Since 2005, Faulkner has hired seasonal guest workers through the H-2B visa program, which allows employers who can’t find U.S.-born applicants to hire temporary, non-immigrant workers. The number of visas issued under the program is capped at 66,000 visas a year, which isn’t enough to meet the needs of today’s businesses. In 2017, the federal government did not exempt returning workers from counting the toward the cap. That left many businesses owners — including Faulkner — shorthanded.
Faulkner was forced to back out of a $340,000 contract for commercial landscaping, and he actually gave away smaller contracts to other landscaping outfits, so as not to leave his customers in the lurch. “I was paying my employees to give away our work, that we did bids on, to other companies,” he says. “The whole company was falling apart.”
I’d invest more into my company if I knew I was going to get the same workers next year, but everything’s up in the air.
Faulkner tried to hire American workers to pick up the slack, but U.S.-born workers, particularly in a period of strong employment, are not likely to take work that’s only seasonal work.Add long hours under the sun doing landscaping, and when Faulkner was able to hire Americans, they seldom lasted a full week before calling it quits. “I hire people, and they go for lunch and don’t come back,” he says. “There’s a lot of chatter about us taking jobs away from Americans, but I can’t find American workers — these are jobs that no Americans are willing to do.”
Finally, in mid-August, the Department of Homeland Security released 15,000 additional H-2B visas, and Faulkner was able to hire the half a dozen Mexican laborers that he needed. A few days later, his crew flew in, and after a missed connection wound up arriving in New Hampshire at four in the morning. Even so, Faulkner says, every single one of the H-2B workers was ready to work when their shift started at 7 a.m. that day — a sign, he says, of the work ethic that guest workers bring to the table.
Having regular access to the same group of motivated, reliable workers is especially important in Faulkner’s commercial landscaping business, which requires well-trained workers. “It takes a guy two weeks to learn to mow a lawn,” he says. “But for patios and drainage, every situation is different — it takes four or five years to train these guys.” Faulkner’s H-2B workers return year after year, gaining the experience they need and in turn allowing Faulkner to run his business more efficiently. “Before I had my guest workers, my company wasn’t growing that well,” he says. “It was difficult to pay and maintain workers.” By using the H-2B program, Faulkner has been able to grow his company and hire year-round American workers in management and sales positions. “The skill level goes up, the efficiency goes up, and that lets me expand my company, which leads to full-time salaried jobs for American employees,” he explains.
Research suggests that every approved H-2B visa leads to the creation of 4.64 jobs for American workers. Well over 300 visas were issued in New Hampshire in 2014, suggesting that the H-2B program helped create 1,550 jobs for U.S. workers in the Granite State.
Still, after the chaos of this year, Faulkner is unsure about his company’s future. In 2016, when business was booming, Faulkner bought a new $90,000 truck for his company. This year, he was planning to invest another $70,000 in a new excavator and trailer, and to break ground on a $900,000 construction project to build a new office headquarters. Those plans are now on hold, at least until there’s more stability in the H-2B system. Immigration reform is needed, says Faulkner, that offers a stable visa system that can reliably deliver the workers that American businesses need in order to grow. “I’d invest more into my company if I knew I was going to get the same workers next year, but everything’s up in the air,” he says.